How to Be Happy? A Nearly 90-Year-Old Has Some Advice
Judith Viorst, May 28, 2019
The author of iconic children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, has never loved her life more than she does now. She's also almost 90.
“What’s been your favorite time of life?” I was asked a couple of months ago. My answer astonished my questioner—and me. For instead of a choice that approximated when I fell in love, or gave birth to my first baby, or held my first published book in my hot little hands, I looked back on my 80-plus years, my nearing 90 years, and said, “Right now.”
It seems I have no wish to turn back the clock to 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. I prefer to press “hold” on the life that I currently live. That’s true in spite of the fact that I am indisputably old—not older, not elderly, just…old. And the fact that so many people I’ve loved are dead.
And the fact that my upper arms are in no condition to ever again be seen in public. And the fact that, as some late-night comic once said, my back is going out more often than I am.
It’s not that the days themselves now are so fabulous. My hair is thinning. My body is not. I can’t find my glasses or keys. And I spend so much time seeing specialists that, if they gave doctorates for going to doctors, I’d easily have earned a Ph.D. But still, I don’t hesitate. The best is not ahead or behind. It’s now.
Having surprised myself by finding out that my favorite time of life is right now, I decided that I would like to figure out why. And so I’ve been sorting out some of the qualities, attitudes—some of the somethings—that have helped to make me happier as I near 90.
But before I go any further, I need to observe that I’m an exceedingly lucky lady. Lucky because I’m still married to (and still love) the person I married 60 years ago, even though he still claims that he can listen to me and read the Times simultaneously.
Lucky because all my children and my grandchildren are, at the moment, doing just fine. Lucky because I have friends with whom I continue to share a deep, enduring history. Lucky because I’ve somehow been spared (at least as of today) time’s harsher assaults on the body and the mind.
I’m also lucky enough to be conscious of, and grateful for, the bountiful blessings of this great good luck.
Do I have my griefs and losses, my regrets and disappointments? Of course I do. But I’ve found that being grateful, though this is something of a cliché, offers great comfort to me, and could for you too.
For cultivating gratitude for the good stuff in our lives, being aware of and even counting our blessings, brightens our view of who we are and where we are in the world—and can make us happier.
I’ve found that a little surplus of gratitude often has downstream effects, helping us become more tolerant, less judgmental, more forgiving of family and friends when they annoy or neglect us, hurt our feelings, or let us down.
It’s tempting to add up their failures and flaws and compare them with our far superior selves, but we make a big mistake if we do. For while most of the folks in our life can, on occasion, be pains in the ass, so—let’s face it—can I and so can you. Figuring out that we, like they, are in need of a lot of acceptance and forgiveness can make for a happier old (or any) age.
When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career. But I learned, though it took me a while, to look around and pay attention to what—if I’d let it—could make my life feel better right here and right now.
My book Nearing Ninety opens with a wonderful quote from philosopher George Santayana, whose proposition all of us should heed: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”
I believe he’s telling us that instead of wistfully looking back at what we once had, or anxiously imagining what might come, we ought to be seeking what satisfactions, what pleasures, what meaning, the season we’re in has to offer us.
In my poem “At the Japanese Restaurant,” I describe a long-married couple observing a pair of young lovers, “So in love. So newly in love. So wildly in love.” And having already been there and done that, they find themselves surprisingly content:
With not being crazed-with-love lovers anymore,
But an old, old married couple,
Here on the further, calmer shores of love,
Sharing, along with sashimi and a California roll,
A hot and sour, sweet and spicy life.
I fear some people assume that we who are older are racked with envy, jealous of young people. For me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m adding to my list of what can make for a happy late life: reaching out to offer a helping hand, using what we’ve learned to be a mentor and guide to younger generations.
Instead of being the star of the show (again: been there; done that), we can share what we know in order for others to shine. And until you’ve actually done this (helped a student in your writing class get published, for example!), you cannot imagine how gratifying it can be.
For we’ve got all this knowledge, this wisdom, this experience, to impart—and are our own children listening? Probably not. But other people’s children may be asking for, longing for, eager for our guidance, and how sweet it feels, how happy it makes us, to give it.
If all else fails, though, my final piece of advice is the simplest of all: Laugh. Although I’ve always counted on a sense of humor as one of life’s essential survival mechanisms, it took me decades to learn to laugh at trouble.
It was only after I’d wept and wailed and cursed and bitched and moaned and blamed my husband—which sometimes felt like it lasted weeks, months, years—that I could finally manage to find the humor in what at the time looked a lot like Apocalypse Now.
These days there’s not much (in my private life, at least) that looks like Apocalypse Now. And my days are too precious to waste on bitching and blame. Laughter comes sooner and easier now, for it would be a shame to miss the delights winter offers to those nearing 90.
Judith Viorst’s Nearing Ninety and Other Comedies of Late Life is the latest in her series of decade poetry books, which include It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life, Forever Fifty and Other Negotiations, and Unexpectedly Eighty and Other Adaptations. She is also the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
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